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SHOEHORN SONATA

Structure and characterisation


The structure of the play

The Shoe-Horn Sonata is divided into two acts: the longer Act One, with eight scenes, and a
shorter Act Two, with six scenes.

It follows theatrical custom by providing a major climaxbefore the final curtain of Act One,
which resolves some of the suspense and mystery, but leaves the audience to wonder what
direction the play will take after the interval. The action cuts between two settings: a
television studio and a Melbourne motel room.

The opening scene, with Bridie demonstrating the deep, subservient bow, the kow-tow,
demanded of the prisoners by their Japanese guards during tenko, takes the audience straight
into the action. As the interviewer, Rick, poses questions, music and images from the war
period flash on the screen behind Bridie, and the audience realises they are watching the
filming of a television documentary. The time is now, and Bridie is being asked to recall the
events of fifty years earlier.

This scene establishes who Bridie is, and introduces the audience to the situation: the recall
and in a sense the re-living of memories of the years of imprisonment. This and the following
scene carry out the function of exposition.

The extreme danger the prisoners faced is indicated by Bridie during this exposition: over-
crowded ships sailing towards an enemy fleet, the unpreparedness of the British garrison in
Singapore for the invasion, the fear of rape for the women. Misto thus sets up some of the
issues to be confronted during the course of the play between the Australian Bridie and the
former English schoolgirl Sheila. Sheila appears in SceneTwo, and the major conflict of the
play begins to simmer.

Sheilas arrival at the motel from Perth introduces immediately one source of friction
between the two: they clearly have not been in touch with one another for many decades.
Each is just finding out such basic information as whether the other ever married or had
children. The audience sees, too, that the warmth of Bridies greeting: Gee its good to see
you is not reciprocated by Sheila. The audience wonders why not. The revelations by the
end of Act One will finally show the reason. The body language described on page 26
indicates the deep underlying tension between the two--yet the scene ends with their lifting
the suitcase as they used to lift the coffins of the dead: to the cries of Ichi, ni, san---Ya-ta!
Their shared experiences are a strong bond.

Journey through memory

For the rest of Act One, the shared memories of Bridie and Sheila become those of the
audience, through the dramatic techniques Misto uses. [outlined in Making drama out of
reality].

In Scene Three, the audience is reminded of how young Sheila was when she was taken
prisoner. The voice of a teenage girl sings part of Jerusalem, the stirring and visionary song
with words by English poet William Blake, and the mature Sheila joins in. (Later Bridie and
Sheila sing it together.)

Bridies attitude from their first meeting as shipwreck survivors drifting in the sea is
protective of Sheila. She sees her as another stuck-up Pom, and hits her with her Shoe-
Horn to keep her awake. Sheila has been taught by her snobbish mother to look down on the
Irish, the label she puts on the Sydney nurse from Chatswood because of her surname.

Further differences between the two surface in Scene Five, when the officers club set up
by the Japanese is described. But by the end of this scene they are recalling the choir and
orchestra of womens voices set up by Miss Dryburgh. Scene Six opens with Bridie and
Sheila in a conga line singing the parodies of well-known songs theyd used to taunt their
captors and keep their spirits up.

Pain and tension

Soon they are arguing, focusing on their differing attitudes to the British women who in
Bridies view were selling themselves for food to the Japanese. The tension rises as more
and more is revealed about the deteriorating conditions for the prisoners and the relentless
number of deaths, especially in the Belalau camp.

At the end of the Act, in a dramatic gesture, Sheila returns the Shoe-Horn. She had claimed to
sell it for quinine to save Bridies life--but in fact as she now reveals she had been forced to
sleep with the enemy to buy the medicine. She extorts from Bridie the implicit admission that
she would not have made that sacrifice for her. Bridie says nothing, but cannot face Sheila.
Sheila is shattered by the realisation:

All these years Ive told myself that youd have done the same for me. [Calmly] I was
wrong, though, wasnt I?
Act Two opens back in the studio, where Bridie and Sheila explain on the documentary the
appalling conditions in the death camp of Belalau. Suspense is built by the revelation that
orders had been given that no prisoners were to survive to the end of the war. The audience
wants to know how there could have been survivors.

They also want to know how or if the tension in the relationship between the two women can
be resolved. It becomes clear that the traumatised Sheila cannot in civilian life face any
sexual relationship; nor has she felt able to return to Britain or to face remaining with her
family in Singapore. She has led a quiet life as a librarian in Perth. Her nights are filled with
nightmarish recollections about Lipstick Larry, and she drinks rather too much.

In contrast, Bridie had been happily married for years to the cheeky Australian soldier who
had waved and winked at her at Christmas behind the wire. She is now widowed and
childless.

Ambush and resolution

Misto is preparing an ambush for the audience. By Scene Twelve, Bridies disgrace is
revealed. Spooked when she is surrounded by a group of chattering Japanese tourists in
David Jones Food Hall, she runs away with a tin of shortbread and later pleads guilty in court
to shoplifting. I still lie awake cringing with shame she tells Sheila. She could not explain
the truth about her phobia to the court or to her family and friends.

The effect on Sheila is more than Bridie expected. She now decides that she can be at peace
only if she faces the truth in public. She explains:

There are probably thousands of survivors like us--still trapped in the war--too ashamed to
tell anyone.
Bridie urges her not to.

But in Scene Thirteen after they have recounted how they were eventually discovered and
rescued, days after the end of the war, it is in fact Bridie who reveals the truth of Sheilas
heroism and self-sacrifice. She then finds the courage to ask Sheila to explain about her
shoplifting arrest

The scene ends with the declaration Bridie has waited fifty years for:

And Id do it all over again if I had to....cause Bridies my friend...


The tensions between the two have now been resolved: the secrets are out, both the personal
ones and the long-hidden information about the experiences of the women prisoners and
internees. The brief and cheerful last scene shows their friendship restored, the Shoe-Horn
returned to its rightful owner, plans made for a Christmas reunion, and, finally, the peacetime
dance they had promised one another in the camp. The Blue Danubeplays:

It is the music of joy and triumph and survival.

Characterisation

Characterisation can mean two things:

1. The nature of a particular character as it is presented in a text. This would include


age, appearance, temperament, past life experiences, personality traits, characteristic
ways of expression, values and ideals, motivations, reactions to circumstances,
responses to other characters.
2. The methods the composer of a text has used to project this character to the audience
or reader. These would include, among other things, the words they use or others use
about them, their decisions and actions, their body language, responses to others
words and actions, the motivations they reveal.[SeeActivities]

The plays structure is based on the differences in character and temperament between
Bridie and Sheila which are gradually revealed to the audience. The action of the play
revisits their past hardships and terrors, but the final focus is on the trauma they have suffered
afterwards.

The revelation of the crises they have each faced is presented as a healing action, which
leads to the resolution of their differences and a satisfying closure to the play.

Mistos own motivations for researching these events and writing the play is made clear in
his Authors Note (p.16). His perceptions of Australias neglect to honour such women as
Bridie is suggested when she says:

In 1951 we were each sent thirty pounds. The Japanese said it was compensation. Thats
sixpence a day for each day of imprisonment.